Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence


Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)

MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON, BIRCHAM DYSON BELL.

The Petition of David Loudon, John McGoldrick and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

160. MR GEORGE: I was on the appetizer Exhibit B7, I do not think we will deal with the entirety of this, could you look at the column "outstanding debt" which is two­thirds of the way across B7. That shows the debt gradually building up and the figure to ring around is the figure for 1991/1992 which is when it reaches 140 million, two­thirds of the way down. Is that right?

(Mr Wilkinson) That is absolutely right.

161. That is the very end of the period when you are having to look to the local authority.

(Mr Wilkinson) That is indeed the position.

162. So far as the traffic figure which is the figure to the right there, starting at 18 the first thing we notice is that initially it was going up really rather slowly, is that right?

(Mr Wilkinson) That is the case, my Lord.

163. In the 60s and in the 70s and indeed following it down we can see having gone up to 20.4 million it falls down to 19.5, 19.3 and 19.6. Then in the lower half of the table we see a pattern of pretty much constant growth.

(Mr Wilkinson) Yes. I think that is right with a couple of minor wobbles, if I can put it that way, certainly in the year 1999 and 2000 we encountered a drop in total traffic as did national traffic as a result of the fuel crisis of that year.

164. Before we break for lunch one matte, these wobbles from 24.3, the figure for 1991/1992 then going down to 23.5, then a little lower down the table in 1999 it is going from 25.8 down to 24.6, to what extent does that reflect the fact that the toll was being increased?

(Mr Wilkinson) It obviously does. The figure of the toll is shown in the column along the side. When the toll was increased from 60 pence to £1 for cars in April 1992 traffic in that year reduced from the previous year's level of 24.3 million it reduced to 23.5 million. Similarly when the tunnel rose from £1 for cars to £1.20 the traffic dropped to 25.8 million in the year 1999/2000 to 24.6 million the following year. Part of that is due to the fuel crisis.

165. There are a number of matters, one of them will be a slight correction and then you will get growth recovering again.

(Mr Wilkinson) That is the general practice, yes.

166. MR GEORGE: Would that be convenient moment to break?

167. CHAIRMAN: It would, indeed. Let us adjourn the Committee until 2 o'clock. Thank you.

After a short adjournment

168. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, before we commence, two points. One is very easy to rectify. There was some difficulty in hearing Mr Wilkinson, so we have placed an extra microphone in front of him, but we would ask him to speak up. The other is that in discussion amongst the Committee, it is unanimous opinion that, without prejudicing your case, perhaps the detail into which you have started to go on the historical reference is not necessary, with great respect. We have done quite a lot of homework on this and we would be grateful if we could go a little more quickly through the detail of the historical analysis.

169. MR GEORGE: Point taken, my Lord, and I think, in any event, we had pretty much finished the history before one o'clock. But thank you for the hint. Mr Wilkinson, we were on the B7. Just before we leave it, if we go to the losses/profits column, we need to make it clear that it is only if one is in brackets that there is a profit, and therefore all the first figures are losses. Is that right?

(Mr Wilkinson) My Lords, the figures in brackets in that column are the profits.

170. I think that document speaks for itself. What has been the Government's approach if you have ever turned to them for assistance?

(Mr Wilkinson) My Lords, the government has exhibited little sympathy for the financial difficulties of the Mersey Tunnels. I was associated with eight separate applications for government aid, and each one was rejected, generally with the advice that the tolls should be raised to meet whatever costs were needed.

171. This morning I dealt with what happened about the precept 1998-92. Did I summarise the position accurately?

(Mr Wilkinson) Yes, you did.

172. In which case, we need not go over it yet again. We can turn on now therefore to the current position and your current concerns. I mentioned the ADAC reports, and the Committee has them in the bundle at B8 and at B9. Is there anything further you want to say about them?

(Mr Wilkinson) I just want to stress, my Lords, that these reports were prepared by an independent consortium of European motoring organisations. They were, I stress, an independent assessment from a user's perspective. They were not commissioned by Merseytravel, not paid for by Merseytravel, but we did voluntarily submit to this examination.

173. I would like you to go, please, to B16, skipping over lots of the pictures of various sorts of works. When I spoke to the Committee about providing escape-ways beneath the carriageway, is that what one sees illustrated on page 69?

(Mr Wilkinson) That is so, my Lords. The diagram we see in B16 is the initial provision of emergency escape refuges and passageways. A contract for that scheme has been let and construction will begin later this month. The initial cost of that is £6 million, ultimately rising to £10 million because we are doing it in stages, but the mid-river section is going to cost £6 million.

174. I mentioned to the Committee this morning how you made an application for a conventional toll rise in October 2002 but were able to withdraw it when the government eventually gave you permission to borrow some money towards starting on these works. Is that the position?

(Mr Wilkinson) Yes, it is, my Lords. There are in fact three sources of funding for these emergency escape passageways and refuges. There is £2.4 million coming from government borrowing consent for the year 2004-05. We also have a three per cent growth in traffic in the current year, which is producing £1 million a year more toll income than we expected. We also have an accumulated balance on the reserve and renewals fund. So those three factors will combine to provide the funding for this scheme and the other schemes in the current programme of refurbishment.

175. I want to move ahead to the current traffic and toll income. Could we go to B17. We can see a breakdown of the annual traffic and toll income. You are charging different tolls for different classes of vehicle and are those identified on that table?

(Mr Wilkinson) Yes, they are, my Lords. The classes are based upon different weights of vehicles, different passenger-carrying capacities, or the numbers of axles. The table here shows how many users are concessionary and therefore pay nothing, how many in each class are paying by the Fast Tag system and how many choose to pay by cash. The respective tolls are shown in the middle column on that table, and the total toll income is shown over the right-hand side, coming to a grand total of just over £33 million in the current year.

176. In the footnote you remind us there is a very small item, also coming from advertising, which we have to add in to give you your income.

(Mr Wilkinson) That is true, my Lords.

177. Is Fast Tag a sort of season ticket?

(Mr Wilkinson) In a way, my Lords, it is. It is a pre-payment mechanism that has become very commonplace. If anyone has been through the Dartford Tunnel, there is an identical system there. It involves paying in advance, having a tag on the windscreen of your car which tells the toll collection machinery that you have already paid, and therefore as you reach the toll barrier it will rise automatically, so you do not need to stop and pay any cash.

178. B18 shows us that most of the traffic, as one would expect, is on weekdays, Monday to Friday.

(Mr Wilkinson) That is so, my Lords, and again, in the class 1 category. It is very much a Monday to Friday crossing.

179. If we turn over to B19, which is called Profile of Origin of Regular Users, we can see that 75 per cent of the regular users are people who are coming from the west of the Mersey. That is at the top of the table. Is that right?

(Mr Wilkinson) That is correct, my Lords. The 75 per cent figure refers to the traffic which is traditionally eastbound in the morning from the Wirral towards Liverpool.


 
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